This refreshingly balanced approach to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s redemptive suffering theodicy is an excellent starting point for readers seeking a more thoughtful judgment about King’s place among the seminal theological minds of the Christian tradition. Compelling, engaging, and highly readable, The Power of Unearned Suffering is a remarkable feat in the face of the ever-growing body of scholarship on King. A richly-documented and enormously stimulating book!
— Lewis V. Baldwin, author of "The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr."
Mika Edmondson chronicles for us a carefully crafted text that examines Dr. King’s thesis of the power of redemptive suffering. With an eye for the historical development of this idea in the Black church and academy he analyzes redemptive suffering in the context of evil. A lovely companion text to James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
— Noel Leo Erskine, Emory University, author of "King Among the Theologians"
The Power of Unearned Suffering is much more than a scholarly and lucid analysis of the roots and implications of King's theodicy. Better yet, it is also a critical, spirited, and gracious defense against those who depict King's embrace of "redemptive suffering" as quietistic or absent of liberating power. We are greatly indebted to Mika Edmondson for identifying the socially powerful legacy of King's approach to suffering and evil.
— Michael G. Long, Elizabethtown College, coauthor of "Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography"
The title of this book, alone, is compelling for both the scholars in the academy as well as the avid reader of theology in the marketplace. This title is suggestive of a rather ambitious undertaking. Edmondson wants to accept the intellectual challenge to investigate a subject which has proven to be a rather thorny theo-philosophical conundrum over the decades since King’s life, work, and death. Compared to other more recognizable themes in King's work such as love, justice, peace, and community, research on the meaning and contemporary relevancy of theodicy, suffering, and redemption in King's work, has been noticeably lacking. Indeed, theodicy, suffering, and redemption as viable moral-ethical mandates for justice struggles have been elevated in King’s numerous works. They remain solidly in the pantheon of his most nonnegotiable moral-spiritual principles. These principles are also among the most misunderstood and misinterpreted assertions in King's total perspective. Perhaps due to the very fact that they remain so ambiguous for many and flat out rejected by significant slices of the academy and the culture, we have not enjoyed any work to date that has provided a sustained presentation of these moral principles and theological-ethical themes in King’s work.
Edmondson’s work offers a timely examination of King's understanding and use of these themes and principles. First, Edmondson situates King's perspective within the Black Church Tradition. This allows him to construct the dialogue between King and the tradition out of which King emerged and within which the issues of theodicy, suffering, and redemption have remained paramount since its inception prior to the Civil War in America. This section provides a historical backdrop for the discussion to follow, and does justice to the fact that the discussion is grounded in historicity rather than abstract philosophical ruminations. This move also opens the door to the ways in which theodicy suffering and redemption in King are emergent from black ontology as it has struggled to achieve its own as well as the larger culture's redemption.
I think this move by Edmondson proves to be a masterful stroke in that it contextualizes the study, and opens the later dialogue with humanists and womanists as an organic rather than episodic event.
To be sure, there have been works on moral evil, suffering, redemption by scholars like Anthony Pinn, Cheryl Kirk-Dugan, Rufus Burrows, and James Cone which have predated Edmondson's. What Edmondson brings to the table of discourse is a sustained argument about King's uses of theodicy, suffering, and redemption as moral-ethical mandates to achieve justice. Further, Edmondson's text pays significant attention to both the Reverend and Doctor components of King’s public witness. Edmondson doesn’t read over the significant theological debate which lies underneath King's employ of these themes/principles, and he pays attention to the ethical implications that are inherently embedded in the debate itself. Thus, a rather subtle, but no less implicitly powerful focus on the running debate between integrationist and nationalist-separatists traditions of struggle and dissent in America among Black people.
Another derivative strength of this work is its contextualization of these principles and themes of King within both the MACRO-universe of Liberal Protestantism and the MICRO-universe of the Black Religious Tradition. This work moves between the contours of each of these traditions of thinking and practice while reminding the reader of the contributions each made to King’s theological and ethical perspectives. As Edmondson lays out these universes, it becomes clearer to see how King, in turn, pushed the boundaries of each of these traditions towards greater expansion. Thus, Edmondson appears to point to King as a religious innovator in this regard, a person who is grounded in solid religious themes, and connects them to pressing issues to forge a morally consistent response to injustice—in other words, a socially active faith universe.
Works like this with respect to King, have been the road less traveled relative to scholarly research. We have seen few books which tackle these concepts. Edmondson’s work will be a much needed corrective to the dearth of materials on this aspect of King’s thought and practice. With recent surges of violence in multivariate forms in the culture; with the rise of incivility in private and public discourse; with the underlying issues of misogyny and techno patriarchy running underneath the current Presidential race; and with the near-full blown postmodernist approaches to issue resolution stampeding the police, Edmondson's work offers a King whose perspectives on theodicy, suffering, and redemption will accent the moral dimension in thought, discourse, and practice. In this way, we can imagine a King who will remain relevant to issues in the new millennium.
Of course, the question which remains is HOW or in what way/s is this conversation about theodicy, suffering, and redemption relevant to contemporary culture? What is unique in this work is that Edmondson ends where he begins——with the Black church tradition and Black traditions of struggle to achieve justice in America. These are the most laser-sharp analyses and critiques of King's notions of the redemptive nature of unearned suffering, and the issue which presents itself for resolution is whether or not King's perspective passes muster when placed in dialogue with these powerful traditions of critical reflection and exchange.
The Relevancy section of the book is masterful in its writing style, tone, and illuminative power. This portion of the text is subtly racy in these pages, and this may represent an understatement. I think this section represents the epicenter of Edmondson's argument in terms of how King's moral assertions might be viable for womanists and humanists——those who will be among the most disadvantaged and marginal in the community and who have the most to gain or lose practically in the argument . In fact, this section offers insights which are brilliant and compelling in some areas. It also demonstrates an ability to capture and hold the reader’s attention throughout what could be a rather dense topic and a rather lengthy book. What will King's perspective mean to them as they participate in their own liberation struggle? How will redemption be achieved in the struggle against suffering for these human beings? Without giving away Edmondson's conclusion, I believe that this section represents grounds for a new type of discourse—one which offers a genuinely open conversation about the ways in suffering and redemption may be not merely understood in light of structural oppression, but how that very understanding may function in efforts to either maintain or transform existing, reified arrangements of power and privilege in the culture. This section appears to wane near the end, however. I believe that Edmondson could exit the discussion with more of a bang if the text were to more concrete examples/narratives of HOW King's notion of redemptive suffering actually functions in the life of the church and culture. This might provide even more of a compelling argument for interested readers in general, and for humanist and womanists, in particular.
— Luther D. Ivory, Rhodes College